A young British soldier is lost and alone on the streets of Belfast in 1971.
’71 may be a film that’s set at the height of the Troubles but its ultimately one that touches fairly lightly on the reality of events in Northern Ireland. And to enjoy it, you’ll equally have to put your own politics aside as the film tries to show good and evil on both sides of the divide.
If you can sideline the politics what you’ll find is a cracker of an action thriller. TV director Yann Demange (Dead Set) may never have made a feature before but he knows exactly where to put the camera and how to draw out tension from a film which takes time to get to its kicking off point.
When it does, it barely stops for the rest of the spare 99 minute running time. Jack O’Connell is on the run behind enemy lines, with no idea who to trust and no place to rest. He does find some temporary allies and a few rare moments of calm, but that all just helps to serve the frantic pace of the rest of the picture.
It’s really more of a survival film in many way. This soldier isn’t a killing machine or a superhero – he’s constantly on the edge of death in hostile territory and his lack of significant weapons makes him supremely fragile. The nature of the enemy is nebulous too – there are no uniforms to flee from, no politics are etched on people’s faces.
There are a number of standout sequences which play with long shots and a lingering camera which almost always stays with O’Connell’s point of view. After the excellent Starred Up this is a much quieter performance from the young actor but together with Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken at the end of 2014 marks an incredible year for the performer.
The other roles are always watchable – pros like Richard Dormer and David Wilmot provide plenty of layers to their brief turns and there’s a memorable performance from the very young Corey McKinley who brings some lightness and pathos to a heavy storyline.
The action is punchy and decidedly unglamorous, like an artefact from a time when style wasn’t the main intent of every film, and the shootout in its final moments is comprised of terrifically sharp pops of gunfire and a punch drunk camera which – together with perfect editing – brings things to a close with an emotional bang.
There’s a bit of a framing narrative here which never hit home with me the way it should have and ultimately I wasn’t quite sure why we should be rooting for this soldier invading a civilian population. It’s also a little hard to divorce the film from its setting, couldn’t it just as well been set in any conflict, maybe one with less emotional context?
Regardless, Demange has crafted a well-made action thriller with some stand out scenes and also caught a rising star in O’Connell right before his career goes completely meteoric. Well worth checking out.